March, 2007

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Into The Mouths Of Babes

They can’t vote, drive or in some cases tie their shoes. Yet, they may be our industry’s most important customers. They are young children, and new research offers valuable insight into how to get more of our industry’s products into the mouths of these babes.

There are about 36 million children aged 3-11 in the United States alone — a tremendous consumer base in their own right. However, they and their families also happen to be the worst fruit and vegetable consumers. Nearly two-thirds of those consumers who aren’t even getting their 5-A-Day are families with children, according to 2005 NPD Group research for Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) — and that’s regardless of family income, household size, education level or occupation.

This consumption gap presents opportunity for the produce industry.

New Produce Marketing Association (PMA) consumer research offers helpful tips on how to push kids’ produce consumption higher. Opinion Dynamics Corporation surveyed 1,000 consumers for us by telephone in early January to gauge children’s produce consumption. (This research is available from PMA’s Solution Center.)

What’s keeping kids from eating enough fruits and vegetables? The shoppers we surveyed ranked taste and experience issues as being significant barriers; time pressures followed closely behind. That is, 82 percent said taste factors, such as kids not liking the taste of some fruits and vegetables, were a somewhat to very significant barrier. Meanwhile, 80 percent cited children’s previous bad experiences, and 70 percent cited not having enough time in the day to get in all those fruits and veggies.

It isn’t that children don’t like our foods — we know from personal experience they do so with gusto. More formally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) fledgling Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) that funds free school fruit and vegetable snacks has increased kids’ consumption, and they are asking for more fruits and vegetables at home. Other research has shown that just giving kids more options, such as a salad bar, can increase their consumption at school lunchtime.

What, then, is keeping kids from eating more of our products? The shoppers we surveyed cited making fruits and vegetables appealing (28 percent) as the greatest challenge, while 24 percent cited getting the family enthused or involved. On the other hand, 34 percent couldn’t put their finger on what was keeping kids from eating more.

These responses suggest we can increase consumption and sales by helping our customers make our foods more appealing to their families. This could include offering products for sale in ways that make them more eye appealing and suggesting a broad range of great tasting meal and snack ideas.

Where do we start to change children’s consumption? Most shoppers (87 percent) told us they think it is somewhat to very important to make produce consumption fun for kids. Over two-thirds agreed putting cartoon or superhero characters on packaging can help make fruits and vegetables fun, though 25 percent disagreed with that marketing tactic. Over one half (61 percent) said parents are most effective at getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables regularly. Friends and peers, and schools, followed distantly; 17 percent thought all these influencers were equally powerful. In fact, only 5 percent believe schools are an effective way to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to children.

I think three particularly impactful channels through which we can work to grow children’s fruit and vegetable consumption are parents, eating places and policy.

By giving parents — especially moms — the guidance they need in the places they look for such help, we can help them better care for their families and feel better about themselves in the process. Offer Mom kid-friendly recipes, other product use ideas and suggestions for involving kids in food preparation at home to create quality time, too. The new Fruits and Veggies — More Matters! brand replacing 5-A-Day in March is mom-focused; contact PBH to find out how to put the new brand to work for you.

By working to get healthful produce options on kids’ menus at restaurants, we can increase kids’ consumption and help moms feel better about dining out. With some notable exceptions, our foods are largely absent from kids’ menus today. (As a regular restaurant patron, I know there is room to improve the regular menu, too.)

On the policy front, a recent USDA proposal shows the potential: increasing fruit and vegetable access for the millions of moms and young children served by the WIC nutrition safety-net program will create $500 million in annual sales. Our industry has considerable grassroots power to encourage governments to execute the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in their own food policies and programs. PMA has made it a priority to help our industry do this.

The produce sector is in a unique position within the food industry. Fruits and vegetables are among the only food groups we are being encouraged to eat more of, not less. Not only are our products good looking and good tasting, but they are better for health and a healthful weight, too. We are in a position to help end our nation’s obesity epidemic and grow our sales in the process. Imagine the possibilities if just the children ate their minimum servings a day. Now that would be truly an investment in a brighter future.

Parental Cry For Help

Bryan brings up a subject close to this author’s heart. Two of the 36 million children aged 3-11 reside in the Prevor household. We care deeply about what they eat. So when Bryan asks the following question, we pay close attention: What’s keeping kids from eating enough fruits and vegetables?

Living with members of the study group and being involved with their classmates and friends makes me advise caution. Kids enjoy sweet fruits like apples, oranges, grapes. Blueberries are very popular. Although technically a vegetable, melons are enjoyed as well. So are bananas. Other fruits depend on individual taste and family practice.

Vegetables are much more of a mixed bag. The writer’s children are considered “good vegetable eaters” because they eat peas, corn and carrots — sweet, starchy, vegetables.

This represents an overarching problem for industry efforts to increase consumption. Many of the health benefits of produce are found in more bitter green vegetables that often don’t appeal to children’s taste buds.

Many parents, who would like to see their children eat more produce, may feel they eat adequate amounts of sweet fruit and fear upset stomachs if they give them more.

So 82 percent reporting taste as an issue cannot be dismissed. Next time PMA does research on this subject, defining what items children enjoy and do not enjoy would be useful in developing a more sophisticated industry marketing approach to children.

Bad experiences, at 80 percent, should serve as a wake-up call about irregular taste. The only difference between children and adults here is kids are more blunt. Adults who buy unripe grapefruit, dry oranges, mealy apples or sour blueberries may remember the experience next time they are in a grocery store. A child, in all likelihood, spits it out.

Although an adult is capable of saying, “I like blueberries, but I didn’t like those blueberries,” a child may react to an off-tasting fruit, especially a new item, and declare he doesn’t like it — a decision that can affect his parents’ purchase habits for some time.

What could 70 percent of the respondents mean when they say they didn’t have time to get all the produce items in during the day?

The obvious answer is that produce items are more convenient than ever before but items that require refrigeration aren’t as easy to keep in Mom’s purse or store in the mini-van for a quick after-school snack.

The less obvious answer may be more important; it is saying children do not want to eat the produce item, and therefore it would require great parental involvement.

At my 5-year-old’s pre-kindergarten, cafeteria staff must put a vegetable on each child’s plate. Every once in a while, I go and watch the kids remove the vegetable from the plate or let it languish forlornly all through the meal.

And thus the reality of this issue. If we go out to dinner and allow the children deep-fried chicken fingers, french fries and ketchup, we can have a nice meal. If we order sliced zucchini and yellow squash and insist they eat it, we are in for a miserable meal with crying and battling. We value healthful eating, but we also value quality family time.

We need deeper research on this subject to understand it better. When 28 percent of consumers say making produce appealing takes too long, what do they mean? Peeling and slicing? Making baked apples? Carving apples in the shape of birds? We need to find out so we can see if we can’t do it for consumers.

Twenty-four percent say getting the family enthused or involved is the problem — but that makes eating produce sound like an hour a day on the Stairmaster. If we need massive family enthusiasm about eating it, we are not going to get the consumption we hope for.

One thing to be careful of is increasing sales vs. increasing consumption. Our kids don’t happen to eat much cereal because they don’t like milk — but they would buy every cereal with a character on it — and never eat it.

Characters on produce will definitely lead to kids pleading with parents for an item. But those purchases won’t be repeated if children don’t eat the item. We’ve never seen any research indicating, for example, Popeye has increased kids’ consumption of spinach salad.

Bryan identifies three key impact points where the produce industry can help boost produce consumption among children: policy, eating places and parents.

Policy can be crucial, but it doesn’t mean any particular proposal is helpful. We don’t know if giving a small stipend to WIC recipients to buy produce will increase produce purchases or free up money already going to purchase produce to buy other items.

Eating places is certainly crucial. In 2005, Walt Disney World gave out free hot chocolate and cookies every night around Christmas. In 2006, Disney added fresh-cut apples. We need formal studies to guard against a substitution effect — people eat less produce at other times to compensate for increased consumption at a certain time — but simple availability seemed to boost consumption.

But, parents are always crucial. The 61 percent who say parents are most effective at getting children to eat fruits and vegetables are right, and those who think it is schools or peers should remember parents influence those things as well.

These survey results are a cry for help. The culture leads 87 percent to say produce consumption should be fun for kids. Why? Because they are used to being the center of the world, doing pretty much what they want to do, and parents have pretty much forgotten how to make them do the right things. So parents look desperately to the industry for help in getting their children to do voluntarily what they are unwilling or unable to compel.